Friday, October 29, 2010

accepting the paradoxical

A small point that I wrote in a comment to an earlier post, but I want to highlight it because I think it's important: the challenge that faced Avraham in dealing with the akeidah, at least according to some Rishonim and meforshim, was not dealing with contradictory messages from G-d, i.e. the seeming contradiction between G-d's promise to continue Avraham's legacy through Yitzchak and G-d's command to sacrifice Yitzchak. Avraham could have resolved that issue in a number of ways, the most obvious being that Hashem never commanded that Yitzchak be killed -- "kach na..." is a request, not a command. Others write (based on the Zohar) that the command to do akeidah was seen by Avraham through ispaklarya she'eina m'eira -- it was an unclear prophecy -- and therefore might have been dismissed as erroneous when weighed against the clear prohibition of murder. If I wanted to sum up the main idea of half the Tosfos in shas it would be "Im tomar...Sugya A contradicts Sugya B..., v'yesh lomar we can resolve the apparent contradiction." Avraham Avinu was probably at least as good a lamdan as Tosfos and could think of teirutzim. The greatness of Avraham is that he chose to accept the paradox rather than resolve it.

It takes a certain degree of heroism to face up to a tzarich iyun gadol, an unresolvable problem, and move on, but it takes even greater heroism to face a problem where there are pat, easy answers that suggest themselves and to choose to remain with the question rather than take those easy outs. I don't mean, of course, that one must deliberately remain in a state of stupidity and not accept any answers to questions. I mean that deep, demanding questions require deep, thoughtful answers, and to dismiss them lightly and latch onto any solution to avoid problems and contradictions is not a good strategy. If you need a concrete example, contradictions between science and Torah are resolved very easily in one of two ways: 1)dismissing scientific data as erroneous; 2) dismissing Torah as allegorical, figurative, historically conditioned, but not literally (or scientifically) accurate or eternal truth. I am not happy with either solution; I prefer the paradox to the answers.

There are shiurim and books out there that purport to provide answers to every problem, from the mysteries of creation to why good people suffer and bad people prosper. We've lost the art of living with paradoxes, and instead prefer instant solutions, nicely packaged into a 45 minute lecture with a take home handout sheet and a DVD you can buy afterwards for review. The akeidah teaches us that accepting paradox and its consequences is sometimes better than easy solutions.


  1. Bob Miller3:54 PM

    Do you believe all the claims about data or only some?

  2. I'm not sure how it's possible to not believe data -- facts are facts. You can dispute the interpretation of data, but that's not what you asked.

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  4. Anonymous12:11 AM

    I don't think the Rishonim shared your view. Can you imagine a Rishon saying, "Well Aristotle seems to have proven x; but I guess we'll just have to live with it"?